The Soviet government couldn't stop him. The KGB couldn't silence him. And years of imprisonment didn't break his will.

But a chance encounter with a troubled young stranger who claimed to hear the word of God cost him his life.

That bitter irony yesterday hung heavily with friends and associates of Michail Makarenko, the 75-year-old Soviet dissident who was fatally beaten with a rock at a New Jersey Turnpike rest stop early Thursday.

Brian K. White, 26, of Humble, Texas, allegedly told state police that God told him to attack Makarenko after he tried to sell the elderly man religious CDs.

White, a singer of Christian hip-hop, was barely verbal yesterday at a Burlington County Superior Court hearing, where he appeared on closed-circuit video. Judge John Almeida repeatedly asked if White could hear.

On his MySpace page, White rambles on about aliens and an angry God.

"I dont go around trying to ruin peoples life, I just obey God," he wrote. Police have described him as possibly delusional. He had been driving alone to New York City, police said.

Makarenko was traveling with a friend to New York, where he planned to discuss publishing a book he had written and visit friends.

He was a character in many ways larger than life, his friends said.

"He lived all his life fighting and not being scared of anyone," said Dmitry Goldgaber, 59, a psychiatry professor at the State University of New York at Stony Brook who said he had been Makarenko's friend for 25 years. "I'm sure when that guy came to him in the middle of the night with junk to buy, he wasn't afraid."

Makarenko, it seemed, had faced far worse.

According to information provided by friends and in an article in a Russian publication called Glasnost, Makarenko spent 11 years in Soviet gulags for anti-communist activism.

Even before that, he was a thorn in the Soviet side and he paid for it. But he never gave up.

In 1962, he organized a strike at a concrete factory that cost him his job, his home, his parental rights and his education at Moscow State University. Raisa Gorbachev, the wife of the last Soviet leader, had been in his class, one friend said.

In 1965, he became director of an independent art gallery, where he displayed the works of artists who had been banned by the government. The government shut the gallery weeks before a show of works by Marc Chagall.

One of his prison terms was for involvement with an alternative political party.

But even prison didn't deter him. He wrote and smuggled out two books, including an autobiography, From My Life, which was later published in Russian and German. He organized fellow prisoners to complain about their conditions.

Out of prison in the late 1970s, but still under government supervision, he sneaked away from his monitors and led an expedition to a mass grave for victims of the communist regime. His group exhumed some of the remains and secretly buried them at the Kremlin Wall.

Shortly after that, the KGB gave him an ultimatum - leave or be killed, according to Goldgaber. He agreed to go, if he could take his daughter, Olga, and her family. They moved to Germany, where she still lives. His two other adult children live in Russia. Goldgaber said Makarenko moved to the United States in 1982, where he continued his work.

"He was a human-rights activist, a writer and lecturer," said Gregory Burnside, 46, Makarenko's friend and translator, who was traveling with him when he was killed. Since the summer, Makarenko had been living in Burnside's Hillsboro, Va., home. Makarenko's apartment in the Washington suburb of Arlington, Va., had gotten too small for all his archives.

In 1982, Makarenko testified before Congress about the use of slave labor in the Soviet Union, Burnside said. He started a non-profit, Resistance International.

While in New York, he planned to talk to a publisher about his book, which he hoped to publish in English. He was looking forward to June, when a memorial that he helped create honoring victims of communism will be unveiled in Washington.

"He was committed to the idea of liberty," said Lee Edwards, chairman of the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation. "He was a free spirit in that sense."

Born Moishe Herchkovich in Romania to Orthodox Jewish parents in 1931, Makarenko ran away from home when he was 8 to live in Russia, said his friend Goldgaber. He lived in an orphanage and was befriended by soldiers who helped him convert to Christianity.

In World War II, from age 10 to 13, he was a "Son of the Regiment," bringing water and food to the troops.

There, he had the first of what Burnside called his "six scrapes with death."

Burnside said a German fighter plane chased him while he was on the ground during the war. In another instance, he was attacked in the men's room of a bus station in Vermont by men he suspected of being Soviet agents. In yet another, a gunshot tore into his apartment in Washington.

Makarenko did not dwell on such things.

"He loved people - all sorts of people," Goldgaber said.

At Christmas, Makarenko played Santa Claus - he already had the big, white beard - for the children at St. John the Baptist Russian Orthodox Cathedral in Washington.

Next week, his funeral will be there.

"He's done so much. He lived a full life." Burnside said. "I'm sorry it was cut short."

Contact staff writer Rita Giordano at 856-217-8357 or rgiordano@phillynews.com.

Staff writers Dwight Ott and Edward Colimore contributed to this report.